Back in spring of 2012, the fuss for Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE was accumulating. The trailers were met with an enthusiastic response from straight women and gay men. The film was marketed as a “girls night out” sex comedy, with lots of hunky male stars taking their clothes off. Of course, the film had some backlash—mostly from straight guys complaining about “male objectification” and how the movie looked stupid. Coming from an auteur like Soderbergh, known for TRAFFIC, SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE, and OCEAN’S ELEVEN, the film had a weird target audience. Half the audience wanted to see the abs and the dance moves; the other half wanted some Soderbergh goodness. To be fair, there is probably a decent sized overlap between the two halves.
Channing Tatum stars as Mike, a furniture designer who moonlights as a construction worker, and as a male entertainer at Xquisite. He meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at a construction site and begrudgingly takes him on as a protégée. Mike struggles to get his furniture business growing, and Adam starts taking too kindly to the hard partying lifestyle. There’s also a subplot about the strippers moving to Miami, with club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) trying to create a male strip club empire, and another with Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) involving Mike trying to separate himself from Magic Mike.
There is looseness to the club scenes, both backstage and on it. Soderbergh lets the scenes play out, with no real tangible plot. The chemistry between the dancers at Xquisite, including Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Joe Manganiello, Gabriel Iglesias, and Adam Rodriguez, is authentic and lived-in. The boys are caring and affectionate, without any disgusting “no homo” nonsense. It’s refreshing to see a bunch of diverse men supporting each other, even with the good-natured teasing, without a hint of irony or insincerity.
However, too much external conflict bogs down MAGIC MIKE. Adam, aka The Kid, is an interloper, forcing himself into the blissful male world of Xquisite and throwing it into chaos. Soderbergh seems convinced his movie has to have “A Point,” but the major conflict of the film—revolving around some missing drugs and money owed to dealers—feels inauthentic and forced. This world doesn’t need to have “A Point” because it works best as a hangout movie (MAGIC MIKE XXL is a better expression of this idea.)
MAGIC MIKE features a great scene where Dallas teaches Adam how to seduce the women, and it has both men in their underwear with the veteran giving a very hands-on demonstration. The scene is funny, but does not indulge in gay panic. There’s no awkward chuckle, just one guy sharing the tricks of the trade with another. McConaughey is energetic and goofy, but only because he takes his work seriously. Soderbergh shoots the scene in one long take, which adds some verisimilitude to the scene. It highlights, however, the closeness between the guys. Adam might be a little uncomfortable, but he doesn’t belong. Dallas’ line about how they have to play to the romantic and seductive nature of their jobs means that he wants dancers who want to please women. Adam, it becomes clear, wants the pleasure for himself. He has the wrong intentions, and he screws up completely.
While the theme of uninhibited guy love is one of the best parts of MAGIC MIKE, Soderbergh also displays a keen visual style. The outside scenes are sun-kissed, with a golden glow over the frame. This contrasts with the club scenes, with are lit with blues and bright, artificial light. Soderbergh stages the dance scenes with energy and zeal; the choreography by Allison Faulk pops off the screen. These aren’t dudes grinding with an ironic wink to the audience, but actual dancers who know what they are doing. The musical selections are fun, with some choices that are delightfully on the nose, like “It’s Raining Men,” and “Pony.” The strippers in MAGIC MIKE do it partly because it’s all they know. But they also want to entertain, bring fantasies alive, and cater to a hungry but ignored audience.
Dallas and his boys perform a service, and the film wants to normalize this world. So the inclusion of Brooke really sticks out. She’s presented as a total outsider, the kind of girl who “doesn’t get” why women would go to a strip club, or why someone could see stripping as a semi-respectable profession. Her scenes with Mike have him either talk about his dreams to get out of stripping or her casting a judging eye on stripping. Mike does want to get out and do something more with his life, but at the same time, he loves the people he works with. This is a great conflict to work with, but I get the impression that Soderbergh is trying to justify the movie’s own existence. MAGIC MIKE itches to just be a fun movie about a group of cool guys interacting with cool women.
Channing Tatum is a major reason why MAGIC MIKE is a success. He brings an earnestness and easygoing charm that really sells the character—not to forget killer dance moves. Considering the film is based on his own experiences as a stripper in Tampa, it’s not hard to imagine he’s playing a version of himself. One of Tatum’s assets as a movie star is that he appeals to both men and women. He comes across as a genuinely good guy, goofy, versatile, and comfortable as himself. MAGIC MIKE really benefits from that star persona because playing to that vibe is where the film is most winning. The film portrays a healthy form of masculinity, and what a rare treat that is.